Why the Mirrorless Camera Revolution Matters

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Panasonic mirrorless camera
Courtesy of Panasonic

I remember being one of the first to hear about the Micro 4/3 mirrorless camera technology in 2008 when another editor returned from a confidential press trip to Japan with Panasonic. He informed us about the mirrorless technology, and was excited about what it meant for photographers. Although it wasn’t the first mirrorless camera in existence (Epson R-D1 and the Leica M8), the secrecy behind the Panasonic G1 was being touted as the technology of the future by photography journalists once it was revealed by Olympus and Panasonic.

At the time it seemed unimportant, especially when affordable Full-Frame DSLRs were gaining traction like the Nikon D700. Point-and-shoots were selling hand over fist, DSLRs had finally reached the sub-$1,000 mark, and there wasn’t much space for cameras without mirrors.

The mirrorless technology was supposed to be cheaper, have the same image quality as a DSLR, and most importantly—smaller. When I finally got my hands on a G1 it felt cheap and plasticky, and it had an EVF (electric viewfinder) that was sluggish, low-res, and awkward. Mirrorless seemed like a novelty or fad to me, but obviously I was wrong.

Mirrorless Camera Revolution

Fujifilm X-T1

One of the other major issues that plagued early iterations of mirrorless cameras was the slowness of contrast-based autofocus, unlike the speed of Phase Detection AF in DSLRs. This made it harder to find focus in low-light and contrasty scenes.

So you might be wondering why mirrorless cameras haven taken off in the last few years, and what set up the conditions for them to make such a dent in the marketplace?

Collapse of Point-and-Shoot Market

Smartphones have made photography and digital imaging more accessible than ever before, and the rise of our digital and social network lifestyles like Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Tumblr and photo-sharing sites made using a smartphone, well, smarter.

The accessibility of 4G and internet-enabled devices made sharing images as easy as taking a photo and uploading it to the Internet. Convenience is always king, and nothing is easier than having a high-resolution image captured on your phone that connects to the internet with a push of the ‘share’ button.

This made camera companies play catch up to Olympus and Panasonic to release their own mirrorless cameras. When the point-and-shoot profits dwindled in the market, there was an increase in the interchangeable-lens camera market from 12.9 million units shipped in 2010 to 17.1 million in 2013. The revenue for both DSLRs and mirrorless cameras combined went from $4.6 billion to $6.2 billion, according to CIPA.

Improvements Across the Board

The camera companies adaptation to the market demand help paved the way to improve mirrorless technology and design; allowing for more affordable, smaller, classic-looking cameras reminiscent of the film days.

The major difference between a DSLR and mirrorless is the presence of a mirror in the DSLR. So what’s the big difference anyhow? Well, a mirror gives you an exact optical view of what your camera is seeing, while the mirrorless uses an EVF or a live-view LCD screen on the back of the camera to frame.

But as stands today, the EVF viewfinders on higher-end models like the Fujifilm X-T1, Sony Alpha A7II, and the Olympus OM-D E-M5 Mark II, are far superior then first versions. I shoot with the Fujifilm X-E2, and the EVF is leaps and bounds better than the original Panasonic G1. The gap on mirrorless EVF’s and optical viewfinders on DSLRs is starting to narrow, and it only seems to be getting better with every new camera release.

Autofocus Adjustments

Another contention a few years ago was the poor performance of Autofocus in mirrorless cameras. Most had a contrast-based AF, while DSLRs had the laser fast phase-detection AF which is better for predicting the movement of a subject and focusing in low light. That is no longer the case with some mirrorless cameras, because companies like Fujifilm, Nikon, Olympus, and Samsung all have a phase-detection AF mirrorless cameras in their offerings today.

That distinction between DSLR and the mirrorless camera seems to be shoring up, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are as good or better than a DSLR. But as technology always does, they will one day equal each other until the law of diminishing returns puts a kibosh on improvements that can be made. We can see that the arguments that mirrorless cameras aren’t as good as a DSLR is getting smaller, but DSLRs are still the better camera for the professional today.

Mirrorless Retro Designs

I think that one thing that helped mirrorless cameras succeed from 2011 on was the aesthetic quality of their design and build. When you see them you are instantly struck that people were using a film camera with all the dials, classic body style, rangefinder looks, and nice metallic/aluminum finishes, but instead it was just a smaller digital camera with a bigger image sensor.

We now have modern day rangefinders and sleek retro cameras that take us back to the days of film, but give us the convenience of lightweight, compact, and digital images that are a joy to capture; and that render beautiful images. They sort of fall into the Leica threshold, as in they look like rangefinders and capture images with great image quality.

Will Mirrorless Become a Pros Camera?

Sony A7II

Yes and No…maybe. We already see a lot of professionals latching on to the Sony Alpha A7 cameras because of their low-light performance and full-frame sensor. Another reason early on that mirrorless got a bad wrap is because their sensors were too small with a Micro 4/3 or APS-C size, and the argument was that they couldn’t achieve the same depth of field as a DSLR. Well, that is an antiquated argument, especially since there are now full-frame sensors on mirrorless cameras.

However, there is still no equating a high-end professional DSLR to the high-end mirrorless cameras today, but that may change with advancements in technology. Professionals still need the pro performance of speed and versatility found in elite DSLRs, and they also need the low-light performance and high-end glass. Although we see this gap shortening, I am not sure if DSLRs will always be around, or if mirrorless will carry on with its trend.

So where a mirrorless camera for professionals will increase is in the photojournalist or street photographer who needs a lightweight, discrete camera, or the nature photographer that captures wide-angle landscapes. If mirrorless cameras are built more weatherproof and rugged, I predict that many different photographers will start considering mirrorless cameras in these subsets of photography.

Mirrorless, Mirrorless On the Wall

What does this mean for the future of photography? Everything evolves, and camera companies ahead of the curve and daring enough to put out new technologies and great cameras will survive.

The point-and-shoot market collapse was an evolution of Apple iPhones and Android smartphones releasing cameras that capture pictures good enough pictures for the consumer market. It’s hard to beat the convenience of having your camera and phone all in one place, and that’s why we saw the mass decline in the point-and-shoot market.

Point-and-shoot cameras were the main source of profit for camera companies, and that trend is over. Just like when film was overtaken by digital, the market dipped but gave way to the consumer point-and-shoot camera. Camera companies will evolve and continue to make what the market demands, or if they don’t, they may have a slow death like Kodak.

To read the perspective of a professional photographer and filmmaker on the death of the point-and-shoot, check out what Vincent Laforet’s blog post here.